Starring: Kyle Chandler (Friday Night Lights), Vera Farmiga (Source Code), Millie Bobby Brown (Stranger Things), Bradley Whitford (The Cabin in the Woods), Sally Hawkins (The Shape of Water), Charles Dance (Last Action Hero), Thomas Middleditch (Silicon Valley), O’Shea Jackson Jr. (Long Shot), Ken Watanabe (Inception)
Director: Michael Dougherty (Trick ‘r Treat)
Writers: Michael Dougherty & Zach Shields (Krampus)
Runtime: 2 hours 11 minutes
Release Date: 29th May (UK), 31st May (US)
You’d think making a Godzilla movie that stands up better against a series of bonkers monster movies starring guys in rubber suits blindly thrashing at each other would be easy, right? Sadly, the world doesn’t work that way. Whilst the 2014 Gareth Edwards film did give us a fresh perspective on the pop culture icon and was above and beyond Roland Emmerich’s disastrous 1998 attempt, it featured a very camera-shy titular monster and instead focused on unengaging human characters with barely a character trait to share between them. Fans have been clamouring for a modernized all-out brawl featuring their favourite Godzilla creatures in the vein of Destroy All Monsters for years, and with King of the Monsters that is certainly what they’ve been promising. The final result is a gonzo B movie spectacle that lacks much substance but is instead packed to the brim with action spectacle.
Whilst it respects much of the mythology set up by its predecessor, this sequel tonally shifts away from the dour grounded approach of Edwards’ film and takes on a style closer in spirit to its sister production Kong: Skull Island. Whilst there is some build-up of tension before proceedings really kick into high gear, the film embraces showing the monsters right off the bat and relies much more on intensity rather than mystery to keep up the suspense. The plot is a fairly standard sci-fi adventure with very few surprises, and much of the narrative is conveyed through the cast barking exposition at each other between action set pieces. Whilst this approach is somewhat regressive and has definite room for improvement in areas like character motivation and world building, the new direction not only feels like a call-back to the similarly ludicrous plots of the old Toho productions but also just feels more honest. When you look at them on paper, both this and its predecessor have about the same amount of depth. However, whereas the prior film cloaked itself in an austere mood in a shallow claim at artistry, this one embraces its narrative simplicity and is unashamed of being a big dumb summer blockbuster. The film is not without some depth, coating its MacGuffin-led save-the-world plotline with environmental messages and mythological allegories that give proceedings an appropriate level of gravitas, whilst there are also plenty of nods to the classic films in both plot and design that’ll give hardcore Godzilla fans something to feel smug about.
The previous film often attempted to compare itself to Jaws, focusing on the human protagonists and eschewing showing the monster until necessary, but forgot the reason it worked in Jaws was that the characters were vibrant and interesting apart from the whole shark business. Like with the plot, King of the Monsters eschews such pretentions and packs the cast full of stock genre characters bolstered by the natural personalities of the actors playing them. Kyle Chandler is the nominal lead as Dr. Mark Russell, and though he brings a lot of energy and charm to his performance the character is somewhat thinly developed with a standard “dead child has given me a pessimistic view of the world” backstory. Vera Farmiga has a lot more to play with as his estranged wife Emma and presents a fascinating moral conundrum, but the plot moves far too quickly for her motivations to get the fleshing out they desperately require; as is, her character’s decisions lack impact when we don’t have proper context. Millie Bobby Brown is also engaging as their daughter Madison but her impact in the plot is relegated only to the final act, leaving her character rendered to a mere plot device until then.
Much of the supporting cast is made up of great character actors clearly having a good time, but there’s so many of them vying for attention that the aforementioned exposition scenes often feel crowded. Bradley Whitford and Thomas Middleditch add some fun comic relief but one of them could have easily been dropped, the returning Sally Hawkins feels frankly superfluous when her plot roles could have been carried out by any number of other characters and, despite giving a magnetic sarcasm-filled performance as usual, Charles Dance’s antagonistic Colonel Jonah is never given an opportunity to truly shine. Once again, Ken Watanabe easily steals the film as Dr. Serizawa, adding much needed gravitas and pathos to even the most ridiculous situations; if only he could be in every monster movie.
When the action in 2014’s Godzilla actually occurred, it was a glorious display of modern special effects that gave fans exactly what they’d been asking for. It was just a shame that it was a very short-lived joy. With King of the Monsters, they’ve not only upped the number of monsters on display but also greatly increased their screen presence. There are multiple incredible action sequences featuring these phenomenally-realised creatures threatening humanity and battling it out with each other, and most of the time it is an awesome spectacle that indulges in the sugar-addled childlike joy these movies should inspire; no movie has done it quite this well since Pacific Rim. Unfortunately, low lighting and obscuring elements like rain or fog sometimes obscure the action, along with some occasional claustrophobic cinematography and choppy editing. However, for every moment that is incomprehensible, there are at least five that are gorgeous and will inspire copious amounts of fan art. The CGI is impeccable and the creature design work is phenomenal, giving even the most ridiculous monster designs a tactile sense of verisimilitude. The film’s ultimate secret weapon is composer Bear McCreary, who not only orchestrates some fantastic original music utilising Japanese taiko music as inspiration, but also finally incorporates cues from the classic Godzilla theme into the score for an extra boost of fan service. Plus, his and Serj Tankian’s cover of Blue Oyster Cult’s “Godzilla” over the credits is, for lack of a more polite expression, f*cking badass.
Godzilla: King of the Monsters is not going win over everyone. It’s an inherently preposterous movie that makes no apologies for itself, and yet that lack of guilt is exactly what makes it so fun. Whilst it could stand to develop its characters better and not so heavily rely on genre tropes, it understands the Godzilla mythos better than any prior version made outside of Japan. Whilst the 2014 film was merely a tribute to the 1954 original, King of the Monsters celebrates every incarnation of the monster in a haphazard but awe-inspiring way. Legendary’s Monsterverse may have been cooking on a slow burn until now, but with this film it finally feels like they’ve nailed down the approach for future efforts, and hopefully they continue to improve and top themselves with next year’s long-awaited rematch between Godzilla and King Kong.
FINAL VERDICT: 8/10